Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Blythe Gaissert Tackles the Concept of Home in an Era of Refugees and Homelessness

What’s become more and more apparent as the lockdowers’ schemes continue to unravel is that a significant portion of the global population managed to keep the lockdown at bay. Yes, entire segments of the economy, most tragically the performing arts, were largely destroyed. But freedom proved too strong to die. We found places to shop and eat where nobody was traced or tracked or expected to be muzzled. When our favorite bars and restaurants were padlocked, we started speakeasies and threw potlucks. A lot of us entertained audiences in our newfound clandestine spaces. And some of us even made albums. One particularly noteworthy and fiercely relevant new release is mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert‘s album Home, streaming at Bandcamp.

Its central theme relates powerfully to the global refugee crisis, although it’s taken on frightening new levels of meaning since the lockdown. Joined by a dynamic, impassioned chamber ensemble, Gaissert has engaged an eclectic cast of composers and lyricists who range beyond the indie classical demimonde with which she is most closely associated.

She opens the album with David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s bracing Archaeology. Over a somber, steadily shifting backdrop from violinists Miho Saegusa and Katie Hyun, violist Jessica Meyer, cellist Andrew Yee and bassist Louis Levitt, Gaissert reaches for the rafters in this allusively ominous tableau: houses keep more secrets than anyone knows.

Gaissert sings in Chinese in Songs From Exile, a leaping yet pulsingly elegant diptych by Rene Orth utilizing an ancient Li Qing Zhao text, an expat’s view of absence and longing. The acidic glissandos from the strings in the second part are particularly disquieting.

Gaissert shifts to French for Nous Deux, Martin Hennessy‘s starkly string-fueled setting of a Paul Eluard text: “We ourselves are the evidence that love is at home with us,” is the crux of it. Laura Kaminsky and Kimberly Reed‘s Carne Barata (Chopped Meat) witheringly quotes immigrant Linda Morales’ cynical account of undocumented employees in the meatpacking industry. Colleen Bernstein’s vibraphone lingers beneath the opacity of the string section and Gaissert’s impassioned duet with baritone Michael Kelly.

She soars over Bradley Moore’s colorfully crescendoing piano in John Glover and Kelley Rourke‘s Home Is Where I Take My Shoes Off. a welcome moment of comic relief. The music calms with Kamala Sankaram‘s gorgeously ambered, wistfully imagistic Ramonanewyorkamsterdam.

The lush sway of Jerry Hammer, by Ricky Ian Gordon, belies the song’s creepy childhood reminiscence of the death of an outcast. Gaissert reaches to the depths of her register in the final composition, Bungalow, a diptych by Mikael Karlsson and Rob Stephenson. Its alternately blustery and seemingly Indian-influenced, nebulously swirling textures build levels of suspense that the lyrics never match. Otherwise, throughout this album, Gaissert has really nailed the angst of an era.

May 11, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Remembering a Rapturous Annual Brooklyn Festival of Cutting-Edge Vocal Music

The annual Resonant Bodies Festival of avant garde vocal music ran from 2013 to 2019 at Roulette, and had just begun to branch out to other major cities when the lockdown crushed the performing arts throughout most of the world. This blog was there for the initial festival, and subsequent editions matched that year’s outside-the-box sensibility. Roulette’s vast archive still exists, and presumably everything from those often riveting performances was recorded. Let’s hope that there’s been enough resistance to the lockdown, and enough talent left in New York this fall to resume the series; if not, there’s a fantastic live compilation album featuring some of the highlights from over the years streaming at Bandcamp.

The lineup here is a who’s who of some of the most formidable new-music vocal talent out there. As was often the case with the series itself, all of the singers here are women, most of them composer-performers playing and singing solo. All but two of the tracks are from the festival.

Charmaine Lee‘s Littorals makes an apt opener. Her shtick is that she uses all the sounds in the international phonetic alphabet, plus some that may not have symbols. Part human beatbox, part devious infant, part comic, her solo performance will leave you in stitches. It sounds as if the mic is inside her mouth for much of this. This might be the funniest track anyone’s released this year.

Julia Bullock brings a beefy, soul-inspired vibrato to John Cage’s She is Asleep, Milena Gligić supplying muted, percussive microtones under the piano lid. Pamela Z’s highly processed solo diptych Quatre Couches/Badagada spins an increasingly agitated pastiche through a funhouse mirror.

Backed by clarinetist Campbell MacDonald, Sarah Maria Sun delivers Thierry Tidrow‘s grisly murder ballad Die Flamme, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire recast as arsonist. Tony Arnold nimbly negotiates the multiple voices and disjointedly demanding extended technique of Jason Eckardt’s Dithyramb.

Arooj Aftab joins forces with pianist Vijay Iyer and bassist Shahzad Ismaily for En Route to Unfriending, a slowly unwinding, ghazal-inspired, melancholy tour de force from the 2017 festival. Iyer’s gently insistent staccato, evoking the ringing of a santoor, is masterful.

The title of Kamala Sankaram‘s slowly crescendoing solo electroacoustic piece Ololyga reflects a shrieking mourning ritual practiced in ancient Greece, which men reputedly scared off all the guys. Needless to say, the Bombay Rickey frontwoman pulls out all the stops with her five-octave range.

Another solo electroacoustic performance, Caroline Shaw‘s diptych Rise/Other Song is considerably calmer, with a gently incantatory quality. Gelsey Bell‘s Feedback Belly is one of the more imaginative and intense pieces here, drawing on her battle with the waves of pain she experienced during a long battle with endometriosis. “If there’s anything you take away from this, please take women’s pain seriously. There is nothing like having a women’s disease to radicalize a feminist in this incredibly misogynistic health system,” she relates in the album’s extensive, colorful liner notes. Manipulating feedback from a Fender amp inside a metal canister hidden under her oversize dress, Bell builds a strangely rapt, dynamically shifting atmosphere punctuated by pulsing electronic grit.

Duo Cortona – vocalist Rachel Calloway and violinist/vocalist Ari Streisfeld – perform Amadeus Regucera‘s relationship drama If Only After You Then Me, beginning furtively and ripping through many moments of franticness and sheer terror. The iconic Lucy Shelton sings a dynamically impassioned take of Susan Botti‘s Listen, My Heart, a setting of a comforting Rabindrath Tagore poem, accompanying herself energetically on singing bowls and metal percussion.

Anaïs Maviel plays spiky, circling ngoni on In the Garden, a hypnotically moody, masterfully melismatic retelling of the Garden of Eden myth. The album’s closing epic is Sofia Jernberg’s One Pitch: Birds for Distortion and Mouth Synthesizers. Is she going to be able to hold up through seventeen minutes of nonstop, increasingly rigorous falsetto birdsong-like motives…let alone without a break for water? No spoilers!

April 29, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Defying Category With Svjetlana Bukvich’s Rich, Dramatic Compositions

As a composer, Svjetlana Bukvich has made a career out of jumping off cliffs and landing on her feet. Few other artists are able to bridge such a seemingly ridiculous number of styles without seeming the least bit out of place. Most, but not all, of her vibrant, dramatic, often darkly bristling compositions are electroacoustic, imbued with an irrepressible joie de vivre as wel as both a striking clarity and embrace of the absurd. It seems that she just writes what she wants to and lets everybody else figure out how to categorize it..or just leave it alone and enjoy its vitality. Her new album Extension – streaming at Spotify – is by turns surreal, futuristic, troubling and triumphant.

She plays zither harp through a maze of effects, joined by Susan Aquila on electric violin and David Rozenblatt on percussion, on the album’s opening track, The Beginning, flitting space junk and dancing, pingponging phrases over stygian washes. Bukvich builds the hypnotically circling prelude Utopia around a simple, insistent, wordless vocal riff spiced with her own bright electric piano, flickers from Jacqueline Kerrod’s electric harp over terse syncopation from bassist Patrick Derivaz and drummer Wylie Wirth. Is this art-rock? Indie classical? Does it matter?

Singers Kamala Sankaram and Samille Ganges harmonize uneasily over Bukvich’s dancing synth lines in the album’s title track: imagine an Ethiopian contingent passing through Jabba the Hut’s space lounge. Once You Are Not a Stranger is featured in three different versions throughout the album. Derivaz dips low to open the first one, string quartet Ethel building a pensive series of echo riffs overhead.

Janis Brenner sings a much more minimalist take of the second over the composer’s spacious piano chords. The lush final version, which concludes the album, switches out the string quartet for the Shattered Glass String Orchestra,

Graves, with Bukvich joined by Kerrod, Wirth, Nikola Radan on alto flute and Richard Viard on acoustic guitar comes across as a moody, distantly Middle Eastern-tinged art-rock dirge. Sankaram brings both gentle poignancy and operatic flair to Tattoo, backed by Bukvich’s brooding piano and orchestration.

The bandleader switches to synth, teaming up with cellist Raphael Saphra and bassist Joseph Brock for Stairs, a similarly uneasy miniature. Then Jane Manning trades off with Sankaram over Bojan Gorišek’s piano and Bukvich’s wry electronics in the Balkan-inflected Nema Te (You Aren’t Here, You Aren’t There). Fans of acts as diverse as Radiohead, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, exploding pianist Kathleen Supove and postminimalist composers like David Lang will love this stuff.

May 14, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Visionary, Sardonically Hilarious, Grimly Dystopic New Opera Looking at You Debuts in the West Village

Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera Looking at You is as funny as it is dystopic – and it’s extremely dystopic, and just as visionary. George Orwell predicted that people would become so enamored of technology that they’d willingly let it enslave them, and so far western society seems to be on the express track. The premise of this outlandish multimedia extravaganza extrapolates from that observation, and although it’s a grimly familiar story, it keeps the audience guessing, adding layer upon layer of meaning until the inevitable, crushing coda. The New York premiere was last night; the show continues at Here, 145 Sixth Ave. south of Spring, and west of the park in the middle of the block, tomorrow night, Sept 8 at 4 PM and then Sept 11-14 and 17-21 at 8:30 PM. Cover is $25

Billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, this satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit is ruthlessly spot-on, right from the first few seconds. The first of many levels of meta occurs as the audience becomes the crowd at a breathless product launch for the app to kill all other apps. See, it connects not only your Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tinder, ad nauseum, but also your phone camera, Amazon Alexa, the spycams outside your door, inside your apartment and your bathroom…and presumably every other spycam in existence. Access is universal: the miracle of face recognition technology gives you unlimited data on everyone, and vice versa. Full disclosure: as an April Fool joke several years ago, this blog published a spoof which reached the same conclusion that Sankaram and Handel do here.

The Snowden stand-in (Brandon Snook) sees where all this is leading and decided to spill the beans. His ex-girlfriend (Blythe Gaissert) isn’t convinced: her refrain, heard over and over from several voices throughout the show, is “But I’ve got nothing to hide!”A brief media circus ensues – Kristin Marting’s haunting backdrop leaves no doubt what’s behind those cold, flickering screens – followed by a long cat-and-mouse game with Homeland Security.

In a delicious stroke of irony, Gaissert’s get-out-of-jail-free card turns out to be the enterprise’s crown jewel: it erases every electronic footprint you’ve ever left (mirroring the the real-life Silicon Valley cynicism of how it’s considered bad form to give children screen time until they reach school age), This little gizmo is bestowed on Gaissert by her wide-eyed, relentlessly exuberant, boundaryless boss, played with relish by Paul An. His supporting cast – Adrienne Danrich, Eric McKeever and Mikki Sodergren, in multiple roles – are just as cluelessly dedicated to the cult of Big Data, spouting ditzy homilies about how benign it all is in perfect techno-speak.

Snook imbues the Snowden standin with a steely determination: he seems less interested in reigniting the relationship with his careerist girlfriend than simply persuading her to come over from the dark side. Beyond the acting, we get to watch their affair unravel – in reverse, via text message. An aborted clandestine meeting between Snook and a reporter brings Homeland Security in for the first time; the black-jacketed team’s interview technique stops short of torture but is eerily accurate.

Meanwhile, at many intervals throughout the narrative, Instagram photos and Facebook posts made by audience members play on several screens behind the stage. In a brief Q&A after the performance, the directorial crew explained that they promise not to show anything embarrassing they discover about those in attendance. As an incentive to share your “socials,” you get a free drink for signing into the system operating from the tablet at your table. It takes about an hour to datamine everything available on a given individual, legally, the opera company’s head spy explained. If you don’t want your mug and your stupid pix and who knows what else up onscreen for everyone to see, show up on the night of the show and pay cash like a sensible person.

Beyond the suspense involving the characters, we all know how this is going to end. It’s been said that humankind’s ability to reason is what differentiates us from animals, but in this tale it’s denial that makes us unique among the species. Although the dialogue doesn’t address it, the computer-generated alerts flashing across the many screens reinforce, over and over, how the most seemingly innocuous online or social media interaction has sinister consequences. After all, there’s no human reason involved with this dystopia’s magic algorithm. As Gaissert finally screams, contemptuously, “It’s a fucking computer!”

Trouble is, that computer was programmed by people with a very specific agenda. Big Data was not devised to exonerate anyone. It’s a snare. And as Sankaram and Handel remind, again and again, it’s working better than ever. More than anything, Looking at You reaffirms how its creators’ bleak vision is as vast and shattering as Sankaram’s five-octave vocal range.

Her original score, played by a diversely talented ensemble of keyboardist Mila Henry with saxophonists Jeff Hudgins, Ed RosenBerg, and Josh Sinton, is fantastic, from the cartoonish faux-techno of the opening scene, through ominous noir tableaux, snarky pageantry and brooding neoromantic interludes. It isn’t until the end that Sankaram draws on the Indian raga themes that she mashes up with cumbia when leading her slinky, surfy rock band Bombay Rickey. Even Kate Fry’s costumes are priceless: these true believers sport shimmery pseudo-lab outfits with circuitboards embedded in the fabric. And while the quasi-disguise that Snook wears in the next-to-last act is hardly subtle, it might be the opera’s cruellest and best joke.

September 7, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Contrarian View of Anthony Braxton’s Trillium E

From a music writer’s perspective, the question of how to approach Anthony Braxton’s recent four-disc opera, Trillium E begins with whether or not to cover it at all. Consider: it came out at the very end of last year (on the Firehouse 12 label), meaning that a large percentage if not all of its intended customers have already acquired it. It’s a massive achievement, over three hours of music, five if you count the avant garde jazz titan’s intended hourlong pre- and post-performance processionals. Innumerable, less challenging – at least in terms of sheer time – Braxton works exist which deliver his signature blend of wondrously defamiliarizing harmonies and rigorously cerebral thought. Yet Braxton is one of those artists whose cult grows every year, as another senior jazz performance class initiates a small but trustworthy percentage of the freshmen with something of a secret handshake: “Of course you know Albert Ayler..but do you know Braxton?” So in light of that consideration, a work of this magnitude from such an important composer demands some kind of examination, critical or not.

Some will take this as utter hubris, but this is an album whose zeniths are as exquisite as its nadirs are maddening. The 45-piece Tri-Centric Orchestra is the star of the show. Braxton’s close harmonies, use of microtones, melismas and minute rhythmic shifts make demands that few composers can or dare ask of performers, yet this ensemble pulls them off singlemindedly: very frequently throughout the piece, it’s as if it’s one mighty, majestic voice. The music is more horizontal than rhythmic, nebulously floating banks of sound with understatedly dramatic low/high contrasts, and throughout much of Act I, momentary, flitting motifs filtering through the murk with an intriguing, enigmatic dubwise effect similar to backward masking. The high woodwinds get more lively at the beginning of Act II, followed by long, slowly oscillating, rivetingly otherworldly tones leading into an absolutely luscious segment where Braxton explores the kind of creepily lush, jarringly rhythmic things you can do with a choir, taking a page out of Pauline Oliveros – or Jeff Lynne – both of whom were doing the same thing back in the 70s. Act III adds roughhewn string motifs and simple, vivid battering-ram percussion and a brief but chilling reprise of the creepy groupthink vocalese of Act II: the wavering, pitchy alien mantra “I am here and you are not” delivers a visceral chill.

This album is maddening because it’s an opera, pure and simple. Here’s a radical idea (something Braxton knows well) – eliminate the libretto. That’s right – 86 the vocals. That’s not to say that its rather academically worded existential philosophy isn’t worth considering, or that the sci-fi narrative’s heavy foreshadowing doesn’t maintain interest, or that it isn’t imbued with Braxton’s signature dry, ironic humor, only that there are parts where he actually seems to be mocking the art form itself. And the lyrics themselves, such as they are, hardly lend themselves to being sung. Here’s a random sample:

Bubba John Jack/Herald: I’m thinking more in the way of my own complete set of baseball cards – something more from the forties/fifties vintage series.

Zakko/Arfthro: You can’t be serious.

This also isn’t to belittle the singers, notably coloratura soprano Kamala Sankaram and mighty bass Michael Douglas Jones, who along with most of the rest of the cast do their best to bring some kind of cantabile phrasing to Braxton’s plainspoken, singsongey vocal melodies. But as the opera goes on, the singers veer in and out of voice to the point where they’re practically speaking – as perhaps they should. Consider: the bel canto style came to prominence in a language defined by its fluid, polysyllabic vowels. In general, the technique doesn’t translate well to the clipped sibilances of American English, and this opera is a prime example. Braxton has said that the style is well suited to putting his point across, and he’s just plain wrong. Since he imagines the work taking on many possible adaptations – for shadow puppet theatre, for example, an especially appealing proposition – then why not hip-hop? Or simply spoken word? Or…as a purely symphonic work. Orchestras worldwide have been doing instrumental interpretations of opera practically since it first existed, which ultimately may be the fate best suited to this perplexing, complicated, flawed yet often unearthly beautiful piece of music.

August 2, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments